From Muhammad to Malcolm: Islam, Race, and Empire

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This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

“Islam” and “race” are words that are frequently used in public discourse, but they are just as frequently misunderstood. The boundaries around these ideas are porous. Who decides what is and is not Islamic? Who decides what people belong in what races? These concepts depend upon their contexts. While the medieval Middle East is clearly different from modern America, a comparative approach to history allows us to see how ideas about religion and human difference are enmeshed in the power dynamics that produce them.

We will examine what it meant to be Muslim within an Islamic empire that spanned from Spain to Sindh and what it meant to be Muslim within an American empire that was growing across the continent. We will discuss the ways in which aristocratic elites in Iraq and Virginia imagined the people that they sought to control. We will compare the creation of Arabness to the creation of whiteness. This course is framed around contrasting two broad historical eras: the Middle East in the 7th-10th centuries and the United States of America in the 17th-20th centuries. Through this comparative framework, we will be able to see how conceptions of race are situated in their political contexts. This class will function as an introduction to the histories of early Islam and Muslims in America, while also deconstructing reified notions of what Islam is through the lens of critical race studies. We will read texts by al-Jahiz, Ibn Qutayba, Thomas Jefferson, and Malcolm X.

The class is a combination of lectures and group discussions. Students will be asked to do close readings of primary texts and brief, daily writing assignments that include a summary of key claims, a reasoned response to one claim, and a question for further discussion in class. The lectures will contextualize the readings and give students a sense of the significance of the readings. Group discussions will be opportunities for the students to find their own voice and form arguments within a welcoming classroom.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites. While some AP coursework in history would be helpful, it is not necessary.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CERS0917
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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